LONDON/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Chinese businessman Xia Jiantong has agreed to buy struggling former English champions Aston Villa, the latest in a series of investments as President Xi Jinping aims to make China a global powerhouse in the sport.
Xia, who will be the first mainland Chinese to fully own an English team, told Reuters his company, Recon Group, could pay more than 100 million pounds for the club, though he also said he would not be "burning money" to turn it around.
Villa have been in decline since American Randy Lerner, who once owned the NFL's Cleveland Browns, bought the club for $125 million in 2006. They were relegated from the Premier League this season after winning just three matches.
Lerner reportedly pumped $300 million into the club but took a back seat in recent seasons as the club finished 16th, 15th, 15th and 17th in the Premier League before this season reached a new low as they finished rock bottom.
Under the leadership of Xi, an avid soccer fan, China has set itself the goal of one day winning the World Cup, and has ploughed huge amounts of investment into grassroots academies, TV rights and transfer deals for overseas players.
The acquisition of one of England's most historic clubs by a Chinese businessman follows China's biggest overseas investment in soccer last December, when a consortium led by state-backed China Media Capital took a $400 million stake in the owner of Manchester City.
The Villa deal, however, with 100 percent ownership, is not just an investment.
"The Chinese ownership now get to decide how to run the club," said Mark Dreyer, Beijing-based founder of sports information website China Sports Insider.
Crosstown arch-rivals Birmingham City are also run from Asia, following the 2009 takeover by Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung.
In a final message to Villa's fans, Lerner said he was confident that Xia, introduced on the club's website as Tony Xia, would invest in the squad and the club's infrastructure, including its iconic Villa Park stadium.
"Tony's excitement to develop Villa Park shone through. I remain convinced that this is a crucial part of the club's future as it provides a critical, long-term second source of revenue and therefore sustainability for the club from which squad-funding can potentially come," Lerner said.
"Tony has built his career around infrastructure. He is certainly a hugely successful businessman but importantly for me he is passionate about architecture, site design and planning.
Villa's website said Xia, who studied at Harvard and spent a period at Oxford University, had become a Villa fan "many years ago".
Fans of the club will be wary though.
Lerner was popular at first, engrossing himself in the club's history and restoring the Holte Hotel near the stadium, but fans have become increasingly disillusioned at the decline in fortunes for the 1982 European champions.
Villa's plight means the American's hopes of recouping some of his investment have been dashed.
"Aston Villa's relegation really played in their favour," said Fredrik van Huynh, Shanghai-based director of HHC Sports Group. "It will have pushed down the price quite significantly."
Xia, who studied at Harvard University and has a doctorate, took to his official microblog late on Wednesday to wish the club's fans "health and happiness".
Earlier this month he posted: "Go, Villa, Go! We will be back."
The club said Xia's immediate objective was "to return Aston Villa to the Premier League and then to have the club finish in the top six, bringing European football back to Villa Park".
It added the deal would also help make Villa the most famous football club in China -- a claim dismissed as ludicrous by Dreyer at China Sports Insider.
"I think fans of the club will remain sceptical until it becomes clear what his true motivations are," he added.
Recon Group, Xia's privately owned holding company, owns a controlling interest in five publicly listed companies on the Hong Kong and Chinese stock exchanges.
(Additional reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Gareth Jones)
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